A Look at Sitcom Pilot Episodes
As I mentioned before in my article on The Big Bang Theory, I have been wanting to discuss pilot’s for awhile. What was going to be a whole series has instead turned into one article (well, maybe two).
Pilot’s are of course the first episode of a TV series. Several pilots are made every year, and only a few become series. Even less than that will become hit series which last for years. Today I wanted to run down some pilot episodes and point out what differed from the series that came after it in some very interesting ways. Because pilots are just that, the first episode before the writers can really flesh out stuff the characterizations, back-story, or heck even setting! So pilots can very often look very different from the series that would evolve from it.
One quick note, no backdoor pilots and I am only discussing successful TV series. Pilots to awful series or series that were never even picked up is another whole article my friends. And I can only vouch for those pilots I am aware, so I will be leaving plenty of good examples off I am sure.
The Cosby Show
I decided to start with this one because this is the first pilot I remember seeing, although it was luck. I fell in love with this show instantly. The pilot is pretty close to what The Cosby Show would be, with one major change. The set is totally different! The Huxtables apparently live in an run down apartment here. Why did this change? The original concept of the series was for Cliff and Clair to be blue collar workers. When that got changed to wealthy professionals, they probably figured out that they needed a nicer place to live. In fact I always believed the kitchen scene in the start was filmed after this change was made. If you watch that episode, pay close attention when Cliff first walks into the kitchen. Behind him you can see the traditional Huxtable set that we would grow to know and love. Even though it doesn’t appear in the rest of the episode!
Oh and by the way, they only had four children in the pilot rather han the five they would have later on.
Mary Tyler Moore
The greatest pilot episode ever? Maybe. I never watched this show and as far as I know have never watched the whole pilot. And yet I also know how fantastic it was. I have seen clips of the beautifullyÂ written dialogue and the way everything just gelled right from the start was fantastic. This show started on top and went out on top.
I hated the first season of Family Ties and the pilot is no exception. It’s very cleaer the series hasn’t found it’s voice yet. I really don’t have a thing to say about it. As for Cheers, I just never got into those old episodes. But I have to be fair and the pilot episode is strong, it is clear the creators knew what they wanted the show to be about. The characters are all there and clicking. Sometimes shows manage to get it right off the bat. For instance….
Who’s The Boss?
Sometimes creators of a show just know what the show is going to look and feel like from day one and get the cast perfect on the first try. That’s exactly the case here. Much like what I said about Big Bang Theory last time, this pilot episode transitions into the series smoothly. There is nothing different in this episode that doesn’t last into the next. We meet Tony, find out why he wants to move to Connectivut (for his daughter). He meets Angels and sparks already start. There is some culture clash but in the end Tony heps Angels land a job and all is well. If I were to make a list of perfect pilot episodes, this would be on it!
This is another fantastic pilot, doing everything a pilot should do. In fact the characters are the way they should be. Uptight and snooty. It takes Will’s influence to loosen them all up. So while Uncle Phil and Carlton are different in the pilot, that makes perfect sense. The charactes evolved naturally. Yeah the house is different but it woild take the series a whole season to figure out the set was lame. In fact the biggest change to the later episodes is that Uncle Phil lacked his beard! Aside from that, the show started strong from the very first episode.
Other examples of shows which got it right from the pilot are Mad About You, Coach, and Murphy Brown.
Spin-off’s are even harder. You have to convince the audience that while the setting has changed the character is the same guy or girl. This was one is very well done. Everything is established in the pilot from how Frasier moved back to Seattle to why his father ends up living with him. But despite all the changes it’s still the Frasier we loved on Cheers, quirks and all. Unlike a certain other show named Joey which decided just using the characters name was enough! Frasier is still very much Frasier here, and the cast gelled right from day one.
Not all series pilots are as luck to get out of the gate strong however!
Night Court is a perfect example of something you often see in pilots. The creators get the premise down, the setting and the lead actor/character…but can’t seem to nail down the rest of the cast. In fact from the pilot only Harry, Bull, and Dan remain for the series. The defense attorney ONLY appears in the pilot while the clerk Lana vanishes a few episodes later. And Bull and Dan’s characters are very different. Bull is a serious brute while Dan is a sophisticated gentleman with a pipe. It took awhile for them to get the formula down on this show, and in fact the pilot and first few episodes were dreadful.
Night Court is not the only show to have a character vanish like that. Benson’s pilot featured an aid to the governor who would vanish after that first episode and never be mentioned again. And NewsRadio’s pilot featured a character named Rick played by Greg Lee in the aired pilot before Joe Rogan stepped in full time as Joe Garrelli. The set was tweaked after the pilot also, the editing room becoming the break room. Overall NewsRadio had a very funny pilot which was very well done.
The Golden Girls
I love this one! Did you know that when The Golden Girls first premiered the girls had a live in gay cook named Coco? It’s true! I’ll never forget when I saw this pilot and was like, “who the hell is this guy??” Thankfully they realized that Sophia would make a better fourth and dumped the pointless character. The episode itself is ok.
King of Queens
Another show to have a character suddenly vanish shortly after the pilot. In the pilot, not only does Arthur move in with Carrie and Doug but so does Carrie’s sister. Lise Riefel played her and while she did stick around for a couple episodes the creators decided she was pointless and vanished. Making it make no sense for Arthur to be stuck in the basement since originally it was because her sister had the spare room upstairs.
Sometimes characters are added after a pilot rather than dropped. I’ve gone through this before so I will keep this short. But I don’t think it’s a secret that Elaine was missing from the pilot. Actually the pilot for Seinfeld was very different than the show it would evolve into. It was more focused on the stand-up, Kramer was named Kesller, and Jerry lived in a studio apartment. And the pacing was sllloowww. It’s not a bad episode but is far removed from the series we end up loving.
Just Shoot Me
As hard as it is to believe, Just Shoot Me did not any David Space in the first pilot they filmed. The other characters were the same though the set was quite different. Apparently they realized something was missing because they revamped the set and cast David Spade as Dennis Finch. This probably saved the show since Finch was the most well liked character. The pilot that aired is really good by the way, of course it help when you have a second shot at it.
Sometimes the character is fine, but the actor is so awful they need to recast the role. I already talked about Big Bang Theory’s overhaul in another article. But that wasn’t the first show that had to do that. Show of hands, who knew Bob Saget was not the first Danny Tanner? Yep, the role was originally played by John Posey. When first choice Bob Saget became available they re-shot the pilot and the rest is history. How was the first episode? CORNY! I have talked before about how sugary sweet the first season was. Some may say “wasn’t the show show sugary sweet?” Yeah but that first season was cavity inducing. Joey was ridiculously positive for instance, and then things got better as the show went on but the pilot is….silly. I finally watched that first pilot and it was really bad without Saget. No offense to Posey but he just blended in with Joey and Jesse rather than stand out like Saget did. And Saget had better comedy instincts with his reactions and timing whereas Posey juts kind of, stood there and watched with a bemused look on his face. Bottom line, Saget was much more convincing in the role.
Jill Taylor was first played by Frances Fisher in the first filmed pilot. When she was to dramatic they recast the role and re shot the pilot. The funny thing about this show was that Al was not supposed to be on it! There was another role in mind but the actor was unavailable for the pilot. So he was replaced by Al. Which is why Al’s role is so small in that episode. When the actor bailed out completely, Al became the regular. The pilot is OK, the one big difference is that Tool Time was clearly meant to be integrated into main plot a lot more than it would end up being, kind of like Seinfeld and his stand up routines.
Recasting happens especially with kids. That’s a different Judy Winslow on the pilot of Family Matters. On Step By Step the role of Mark was recast after the first unaired pilot was filmed. And on Roseanne’s pilot, D.J. is played by Sal Barone. He was replaced by MichaeL Fishman because Fishman resembled Roseanne (and was a better actor!). The pilot to Roseanne is really good and while the series would evolve to be very different, it didn’t happen overnight. The feel of the first season or two are the same as the pilot. Very well done.
Another casting change! The first version of the pilot has a different actress play Carol Seaver. They realized, thankfully, the young lady didn’t work very well and hired Tracy Gold. How is the pilot episode? when it first came on Growig Pains was trying to be ABC’s version of Family Ties. So the Family Ties formula is all over the pilot. Especially the talk at the end in the kitchen between Jason and Mike. Thankfully the series found its own voice because the pilot is boring.
Sometimes you can get the right actor for the right character, but the the character isn’t figured out right away. Some pilots show characters lacking actual character traits that would make them very popular. For example, in the pilot of Bewitched Samantha does not wiggle her nose to make her magic work. She just kind of sits there. On Will & Grace’s pilot episode Karen’s voice is not quite that high pitched voice we would come to know and love. On the other hand, there is 3rd Rock from the Sun which demonstrated quite clearly that Tommy and Dick have some sort of psychic connection…which would never be seen again.By the way that pilot is just fantastic.
Sometimes theme songs gets overhauled after a pilot also. The original theme to Family Matters was “What a Wonderful World”. Big Bang Theory used “They Blinded Me With Science”. And The Nanny used “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, before switching to the popular theme we all know. All of these changes were smart by the way! As for the episode for The Nanny I really never saw it. I assume it set up the premise andÂ the characters were the same. The Nanny arrives selling cosmetics but the father saw more…..where have I heard that before? For some shows the Pilot is just that, setting up the situation.Â Mr. Belvedere was that way, the pilot is simply his arriving at the Ownens home. Perfect Strangers has Balki showing up at Larry’s apartment. Taxi had Elaine’s first day on the job. And the first episode of Alf simply showed him crashing into the Tanner’s lives, as well as their garage.
Everybody Loves Raymond
Finally, sometimes you get the actors down, the characters down…but the setting is another story. Creators often borrow sets from other shows to film their pilots probably to save on money. Hangin with Mr.Cooper’s pilot episode was filmed on the Growing Pains set. They must have realized how awkward that was because the next episode had the set they would use from then on (even though in the pilot Alan Thicke appears to offer Mark Curry good luck…serously, that happened). The Brady Bunch pilot has no sign of the familiar house the series would make famous. Laverne and Shirley’s (unaired) pilot was filmed on the set used for Fonzie’s apartment on Happy Days. And Everybody Loves Raymond follows suit, using the house from Martin for their first episode. The characters are pretty much the way they would become except Robert, who for the first season or so was played much dufusier. Oh and the twins are not only played by two different boys but hey have totally different names than they would have in the series. But Everybody Loves Raymond’s pilot hits all the notes and created gags which the series would never forget.
So as we enter a new TV season, it’s fun to look at the pilots that will be premiering and wondering what these shows will look like years down the line. What, am I the only one who wonders that?